Friday, December 28, 2012

The n-word unchained, again

SIX LETTERS, two syllables, persistent and indelible. The n-word. It’s come up so often in the discourse of the last decade that the blandly anonymizing phrase “the n-word” has come to be the standing polite-company surrogate for one of the most psychically corrosive words in the American lexicon.

In recent years, and accelerated with the release of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” the nation has been coming to a shaky détente with the word “nigger” — certainly not a full-on embrace, nor (given the proliferation of hate speech that bounces around the nation and the Internet every day) anything close to a repudiation of the word, but something like an adjustable tolerance that seeks to defuse the power of the epithet by using it situationally, in some wider, more benign context.

But despite all the immediate attention being paid in the wake of Tarantino’s new film, the n-word has been in the process of being slowly unchained for years. The new focus, courtesy of Tarantino’s funny, savage, cleansingly bloody movie, puts the word again squarely in the spotlight, at the heart of a debate the nation has been having with itself, over and over, for years.

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Tarantino — interviewed in The Root last week at length by Dr, Henry Louis Gates — has explained his use of “nigger” in his well-received film, which pulled down $15 million for its Christmas Day opening, according to Exhibitor Relations. For the Oscar-winning director, it was use consistent with the era of the film, in Mississippi a few years before the Civil War.

Tarantino’s historically justifiable use of the n-word in “Django” — some reports have said 110 times, but if you’re fixated on the use of one word in the film, you’re probably not paying attention to the film — weds it to antecedents in the culture.

At a San Francisco nightclub in 1962, the late comedian Lenny Bruce performed a monologue whose frequent use of the n-word, along with other ethnic slurs, had a trailblazing satiric context. Bruce’s withering dissection of that word, and other dehumanizing terms leveled at other groups, made a lacerating point about tolerance, American society and the way a word’s suppression “gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.”

And if we’re counting the use of the word in American culture, the winner and still champion remains Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the closest thing we have to the proverbial Great American Novel, and one whose use of “nigger” forms the tissue of much of the narrative, as surely as the word was much of the vocabulary of the era of the early 1800’s in which it’s set, and the late 1800’s when it was published.

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BUT FOR polite and professional society, the word’s still a huge taboo. In late March, while reporting on a hate crime case in Mississippi, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin said the n-word on air. It happened again in April, when CNN’s Susan Candiotti used it unexpurgated while covering a story about three African American men who were shot to death, apparently extracting language that police discovered while reading the suspect's Facebook page.

“In quoting someone else’s words, I repeated their offensive and inappropriate language. I deeply regret it,” she said.

In October, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith caught fire for using the n-word offshoot (“nigga”)  on the air — for the second time in 10 months — in his sports commentary. Calls for Smith’s suspension were rejected.

And in July 2007, in Detroit, NAACP officials and city officials went so far as to publicly bury the n-word in a “funeral” at that year’s NAACP national convention. “Today we're not just burying the n-word, we're taking it out of our spirit,” said Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on July 9 that year. “Die, n-word, and we don't want to see you 'round here no more.”

Another effort at eradication happened in early 2011, when much was made of a controversial new version of Huckleberry Finn published by NewSouth — a version that deleted the word from a classic American tract, replacing it with “slave.”

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It’s the word we just don’t know what to do with. “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards did his best to keep the word alive, a la Lenny Bruce, in his legendary tirade at a Los Angeles comedy club in November 2006. This, of course, before starting an All Apologies Tour, and going on “The Late Show With David Letterman” to do the full mea culpa.

Richards has had a lot of help. The n-word, and its five-letter misspelled variant “nigga” have been a staple good of rap and hip-hop for years; despite protestations, “nigga” has penetrated the wider culture in a way “nigger” never could.

Some have tried to get around it by corrupting the word as a kind of transracial- fraternal badge of honor. The term “wigger” — an unfortunate portmanteau of “white” and “nigger” — emerged some years back, meant to establish a solidarity between young white fans of hip-hop and black hip-hop artists.

IN AUGUST 2011, the Red Wing public school district in Minnesota approved a “Wigger Days” homecoming event, during which the predominantly white students of the school district were permitted to wear clothes and act in a way that mimicked their perception of black culture. A federal class action suit followed.

The Huffington Post reported: “The suit alleges that despite student council voting on a "tropical theme" for homecoming in 2009, a group of approximately 60 students from the predominantly white school instead attended the event dressed for ‘Wigger Wednesday’ in ‘oversized sports jerseys, low-slung pants, baseball hats cocked to the side and 'doo rags.’”

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We’ve studied the word academically, with efforts to statistically quantify its use. In a research paper released on June 9, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in economics, claimed that, by using the n-word as a proxy for racial attitudes, the Insights tool of the Google search engine could be used to provide a credible prediction of the impact of race on the 2012 presidential election.

The findings, he said in a piece in The New York Times, are “based on the hypothesis that individuals with higher racial animus will be more likely to type the racial epithet into Google.”

Never mind the fact that not every search for the n-word and its variations is a hunt for like-minded intolerants, or that Stephens-Davidowitz apparently had no control for the ages of those who input “nigger” in Google searches — pretty much required if you’re trying to plumbing the minds of American voters. The word and its power continue to resonate in society, as academic hypothetical and as everyday existential fact.

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WE SEEM to know when the word’s use crosses a line, but for years society has made allowances for doing just that. There’s been a situational permission about its usage, one that doesn’t fly with some people. “Words are not value neutral,” political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson said in his Political Report blog on Nov. 20, 2006, after the Michael Richards incident. For him the n-word “can’t be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as … culturally liberating ...”

It’s this collective multitude of reactions — from revulsion to fascination, from scholarly study to commercialized embrace — that will make certain the n-word endures in American life.

The United States’ perverse tango with n continues, amid a sad irony: Attempts to reframe the context of one of the worst words in the English language, or remove it from the national literature, or just reinvent it altogether — all the variations on a malign theme only reinforce its original intent, only reveal the insistence of its historical weight. It’s an American case of plus ça change: The more we try to tweak or dilute the n-word’s context, the more we find its original sin is impossible to erase. The more we try to change what it is into what we want it to be, the more it persists in being what it’s always been.

Image credits: Jamie Foxx in “Django Unchained”: © 2012 The Weinstein Company. CNN logo: ©2012 Cable News Network. 

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